Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Worth watching: Forks Over Knives Official Trailer

*** UPDATE*** I finally got a chance to see this, and I was very impressed. More often, you see ethical and environmental defenses of veganism, so this incredibly powerful health-based approach is a major contribution. My parents watched the film, as well, and my dad in particular was very struck by it, and motivated by the possibility of reducing the number of medications he takes and the other health effects of a plant-based diet.

I'm really looking forward to this film and I thought I'd share the trailer with you, even though it's a bit of a divergence from my normal content.

It's not coming to my city yet, but it may be coming to yours - click here to find out. I don't tend to be very vocal about why I'm vegan, and prefer to explain by cooking excellent food, but I do think that there are important reasons for a plant-based diet, and this film addresses a major one.

Thanks for listening, and as a reward you get my Tom Kha recipe next.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lotus, Part I: Baked Lotus Root in a Honey Ginger Glaze

Baked Lotus Root in a Honey-Ginger Glaze

I love potatoes. It could be that I come from Irish and German stock, both potato-hungry nations, or that I ate lots of delicious variations as a child, or that my plump pre-adolescent self identified somehow with their starchy roundness. Whatever it was, I have always been perfectly happy with a bowl of mashed potatoes as a meal.

Having said that, I'd like to make a case for cooking with a much wider variety of starchy vegetables, for enjoyment, excitement and a more nutritionally diverse diet. Not everyone has access to international produce; it's one thing to be able to find five-spice powder, but an entirely different thing to have to hunt down fresh birds-eye chilies or ripe durian (which, amazingly, I have seen at my local Asian grocery, Sunrise Supermarket, about which you will undoubtedly hear more). However, if you are lucky enough to have someone trying to sell you fresh lotus root, you should definitely take advantage of that. I don't want to ignore the major environmental and economical impact of importing international foods, but as I lean very heavily on local produce, I'm going to save that debate for another day.

Raw lotus root - unpeeled, peeled, and sliced

In fact, though it is much more well-known in Asian cuisine, lotus is also indigenous to the American South (though the lotus root I got at Sunrise definitely wasn't locally produced). When collected by locals in the freshwater bayous of Louisiana, lotus seeds are called graines à volers (pronounced grawn-uh-vo-LAY) in Cajun French or more colloquially, "Cajun peanuts," and serve as a convenient summer snack for bayou fisherman and guides, who can harvest the raised pods as they pass by in their boats. Before the Cajuns and Creoles, though, lotus seeds were a dietary staple of the Native Americans of south Louisiana, though unlike their Cajun brethren, they ate the root (technically a rhizome) as well,  most often baked.

When selecting lotus root, look for heavy pieces that are a light warm tan color with no soft spots and little discoloration. The pretty holes you see when you cut a cross-section run all the way through the length of the root and dry out easily, so look for ends that aren't too withered as an indication that most of the root will be usable.

In many traditional Asian cuisines lotus root and seeds are used medicinally, and are considered cooling, balancing influences. There may actually be something to that, as the lotus plant "thermoregulates" - heats or cools the air inside its flowers to make a more comfortable environment for pollinating insects.

Lotus root can be used in stir-fry or soups, pan-roasted, pickled, deep fried as chips, and even candied, and I plan to explore all of those options, but I'm going to start with something simple, easy, and impressive: baked lotus root in a honey-ginger glaze.

If you don't do honey (or don't have access to local honey), agave nectar will work just fine. I know a lot of people will disagree with me about this, but I don't think that every vegan should abstain from honey; if you feel strongly that using the bees for food production is inherently wrong, then more power to you, but I am personally very concerned about honeybee populations and live in an area with access to local, ethically produced honey on every corner, so I buy from small beekeepers who keep the bees healthy and out pollinating. Agave is a great substitute, but is a little thinner than honey, so always keep that in mind.

Grated fresh ginger

Baked Lotus Root in a Honey-Ginger Glaze
Serves 3-4 as a side dish

2 medium lotus roots
1/3 c. honey or 1/2 c. agave nectar
1 rounded Tbsp. freshly grated ginger

Preheat the oven to 375 and grease a baking sheet. Start by finely grating the ginger - if you keep your fresh ginger in the freezer like I do, it's just fine to grate it while it's frozen. It will seem a little soggy when you gather it up to put in the recipe, but as far as I can tell, that's not an issue.

Peel and slice the lotus root. If there's going to be a delay before you can dress the slices, or if you're making a large batch, keep the slices in a bowl of cold water with some vinegar added to keep the lotus from discoloring.

Remove the slices from the water and dry them briefly to remove excess moisture. In a large bowl, toss the slices with the honey and the grated ginger, making sure to coat them as fully as possible. When you're done, spread them in a single layer on the baking sheet and pour any glaze that remains in your bowl over the pieces.

Bake at 375 for 8-10 minutes, turn them over, and bake another 6-8 minutes. They cool somewhat quickly, so feel free to pull one out and sample for texture (but be careful, because I refuse to assume any liability for burned tongues). When they're done, take them out of the pan quickly, because the honey glaze will glue the slices down if you let them cool in the pan. I also suggest putting some water in the pan to let it soak while it's still warm, for the same reason.


Lotus Root.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Magnificent Brussels Sprouts - courtesy of my mom and Julia Child

I don't remember having Brussels sprouts at all as a child, though apparently we did. All I really knew about them was that people didn't seem to like them - every mention of them I'd ever heard treated them as a symbolic of the struggle of parents to make their children eat overcooked, tasteless vegetables. In fact, I heard a story recently about my friend's uncle who, as a child, dropped his unwanted sprouts through a hole in a hollow table leg so that when, decades later, the family had to take the table apart, they found dozens of shriveled Brussels sprouts. I don't remember ever expecting that they were bad - we ate loads of greens and cabbage-type-things - but I just didn't know. So, when I had them for the first time as an adult, they were a revelation.

Admittedly, no one in the world seems to love cabbage as much as I do, but I feel confident that this is objectively tasty. It's based on my mom's recipe, which flavors the sprouts with butter and breadcrumbs, but for the optimal color and texture, I've boiled them briefly then baked/braised à la Julia Child's method from Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I know this isn't a terribly original approach; one friend insists that pan roasting is the only conceivable way to cook the sprouts, though I think millions of miserable 1950s children would beg to differ.  Even a fellow I got to talking to today at a restaurant bar took care to share with me his favorite recipe, which was remarkably like mine, only including Parmesan. Still, in a time when there's no shortage of culinary reinvention, there's a great deal of comfort and enjoyment to be had in the classics. When you're working with something so simple, the real glory is in the execution. The first time I tested this recipe, I put the butter over the breadcrumbs, and forgot to salt and pepper them while they were still naked, and that made all the difference. As usual, a little bit of technique goes a long, long way.

Magnificent Brussels Sprouts

2 lbs loose fresh Brussels sprouts (about 30 medium sprouts, as close in size as possible)
1 cup breadcrumbs
5 Tbsp. Earth Balance, melted
Sea salt
Freshly-cracked black pepper

Bring 7-8 quarts of salted water to a rapid boil. While you wait for it to boil, prep the sprouts. With a small knife, trim the base of the sprout to remove any unappealing-looking bits of stem. Pierce the base of the sprout with the tip of the knife to help the dense base cook more quickly. Remove any yellowish or wilty outer leaves. Rinse and drain in cold water. If you are using local and organic Brussels sprouts, home-grown ones, or any that may have been grown without any kind of anti-pest measure, you may want to soak them for 10 or 15 minutes in salted water to encourage any burrowing insects to extract themselves. After trimming the bases, you'll have some leaves that have fallen off, which you can use. You may want to save them for making veggie broth, but if you'd like to eat them now, you can blanch in the boiling water for a couple of minutes after you pull the sprouts out and eat them with some melted Earth Balance, a little salt and pepper, and even some leftover breadcrumbs. I tend to get peckish while I cook, so it's nice to have a little snack under the guise of preventing waste.

When your water is boiling rapidly, drop in your sprouts. Bring the water back up to a full boil as quickly as possible. Boil ("slowly," according to Julia - I imagine she means letting the water drop to a nice rolling boil rather than a more frantic, rapid boil) uncovered for 6-8 minutes, until almost tender. Remove and drain, then spread out in a single layer, not touching each other, on a clean towel to let them cool. Preheat your oven to 350. Melt the earth balance over medium-low heat on the stove or in the microwave.

When they've cooled and dried enough to handle, cut the sprouts in half lengthwise to get a nice cross-section. Rub some Earth Balance along the bottom of a pan with a cover or oven-safe casserole, whatever will hold your sprouts in a single layer. Place them in the pan with the cut sides up, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle melted Earth Balance generously over the sprouts, then sprinkle with bread crumbs into each, trying to make an even layer. 

Bake at 350 for about 20 minutes, until the sprouts are tender. Serve immediately.

Brussels Sprouts